Surprise report, v.1.

My first trip out to Fall Instructional League was three years ago, a decision triggered by two factors:

    a. A big league season that was limping to a last-place finish, 19 games back in the West; and

    b. The explosion of high-end prospects the franchise had added since I’d been in Surprise that March for spring training

There was a third reason, related to the second: I didn’t know how I was going to rank all those players added in the June draft and the July trading season and otherwise in that winter’s Bound Edition Top 72, without getting the chance to see them, even if for just a few days.  

Looking back at the roster of 45 that suited up in 2007 for Instructs — which primarily features only players from the lower (mostly short-season) levels of the farm system, plus a handful of upper-level players who need some extra work — you can see a ridiculous amount of impact on the 2010 playoff club.  Among those 45 were:

* Elvis Andrus
* Neftali Feliz
* Tommy Hunter
* Julio Borbon
* Mitch Moreland
* Derek Holland
* Max Ramirez
* Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke, who helped produce Cliff Lee
* Michael Main, who helped produce Bengie Molina
* Evan Reed, who helped produce Jorge Cantu

That’s not to mention the Rangers’ top pitching prospect at the moment, Martin Perez, or the club’s top position player prospect, Engel Beltre, who were at their first Rangers camp as well.

The Rangers would probably admit that there may never be another fall crop like that one — for starters, we hope never again to be that team that’s selling off players like Mark Teixeira, Eric Gagne, and Kenny Lofton in July — but the point is that while the dozens of young players who are gathered here from leagues in Arizona, Washington, North Carolina, California, Texas, and the Dominican Republic for one final month of instruction are a footnote in a season like this one, spending a couple days on the back fields this time of year serves as a reminder of the importance of keeping the pipeline flowing.

Names like Luke Jackson and Luis Sardinas and Jake Skole may be more familiar than David Perez and Christian Villanueva and Jared Hoying, but there are prospects everywhere you turn out here, some of whom we’ve known about since the day they were drafted or signed internationally — and others who, like Holland and Ian Kinsler before them, will have opened eyes internally well before their numbers draw anyone’s attention outside the organization.

By time I got from the airport to the complex on Thursday morning, most of the 67 players invited to Instructs were locked up in the late innings of a high-intensity Fungo Game, where everyone — including pitchers — took their turns at the plate, not stepping in against anyone on the mound but instead digging in with both a bat and a ball in hand.  Jayce Tingler’s squad won the game in dramatic fashion, in front of a crowd of maybe 12, as righthander Cody Buckel tripled and righthander Tanner Scheppers banged a walkoff sac fly to deep left center.

(The Scheppers swing, poorly phone-photographed by me:)

scheppers_fungo.JPG

It was an off-day on the Instructional League schedule (those are necessary in 108-degree heat), setting the stage for the Fungo Game, but the Advanced Instructional League did play, as the Rangers-Royals squad traveled to Maryvale to take on the Brewers-Mariners team, in front of a crowd of 44.  

While AIL lineups are a mix of players from the two clubs that share the roster, each day only one of the two clubs sends its pitchers, and yesterday was a Royals day.  (I hear that Scheppers and camp star Fabio Castillo will pitch in today’s AIL game, which might be enough for me to take that contest in rather than the standard IL game.)

But I did get to see five Rangers prospects in action: third baseman Mike Olt, shortstop Leury Garcia, first baseman Jared Bolden, left fielder Josh Richmond, and designated hitter Vin DiFazio.  The only one who distinguished himself in the chances he got was Garcia, who had a couple impressive at-bats and made a tough play on a ball slowed by a deflection off the pitcher’s glove look easy.

You see these players over enough Marches and Septembers and you start to color in the picture, but for a fan like me to leap to any real conclusions on a young player in such limited looks would be foolish, considering that even the Rangers folks who watched John Danks every day as a farmhand and the Red Sox officials who watched David Murphy every day in the minor leagues underestimated what they had.  Scouting isn’t easy.  And I’m no scout.  I don’t know what Garcia will become, but he sure is fun to watch, with that plus arm and plus-plus speed in that not-quite-5’10”, 160-lb. frame, and while a lot more has to come together for the 19-year-old, the capacity is there for him to make it.

Garcia’s not going to be Rafael Furcal despite the nickname, and a scout who really likes the player may lack the conviction to predict an Erick Aybar future, but Andres Blanco was a legitimate prospect once, well before his career was redefined as “journeyman,” and if years from now Garcia solidifies a bench role for a contender, maybe even stepping things up in place of a key injured veteran for a few weeks, that would be OK, too.  Blanco has a place in this game, and one day Garcia might as well.

While the big league team, which last night extended its division lead to a franchise-high 11 games as it tunes up for playoff baseball, is a bunch of grown men acting like kids with their claw-and-antlers bit that’s led to a T-shirt craze, the organization is using T-shirts to try and help make men out of a bunch of kids in Surprise.  The workout shirts in the above photo say the following on the back:

“I trust my teammates.
I trust myself.”
– Michael Young, All-Time Texas Rangers Hit Leader

And the coaches’ shirts:

The Ranger Way:
Attitude.
Discipline.
Teamwork.
Sacrifice.

The work being done out here by the organization isn’t all about mechanics or technique.

Back home on Thursday, Neftali Feliz was busy setting a Major League record for saves by a rookie, nailing his ninth in nine tries against the Angels and 39th overall.  Three years ago, he was at Fall Instructs, a 19-year-old with 81.1 career innings in three pro seasons, all at the short-season level, making him less experienced than Andrew Doyle is right now.  Is there another Feliz in this year’s group?  Doubtful, but read this:

[His] delivery has some moving parts and some wrist funk in the back, but there are no red flags and his arm is exceptionally loose and fast.  His explosive fastball sits in the mid-90s and tops out at 98 mph.  He also flashes a plus slider that reaches 87 mph, though it’s inconsistent.  His developing changeup also shows promise, giving him the makings of a three-pitch starter’s repertoire.  [He] has No. 1 starter upside if everything comes together for him, but his command is a work in progress, as he needs to do a better job repeating his arm slot and release point.

That’s not a 2007 writeup on Feliz, but instead a September 2010 Baseball America writeup on righthander Roman Mendez, who was just named the number five prospect in the New York-Penn League based on the work he did this summer as a Boston farmhand, before coming to Texas in the July trade f
or Jarrod Saltalamacchia.  Mendez is slated to throw a side today, and I can’t wait to see it.

Meanwhile, the Rangers had six of the top 20 prospects in the Northwest League, as league managers recognized shortstop Jurickson Profar (number 1), Olt (4), lefthander Miguel De Los Santos (10), catcher Kellin Deglan (11), Skole (13), and Hoying (16) in Baseball America’s survey.  BA’s Jim Callis calls Profar the fourth-best prospect in baseball among those who haven’t yet played in a full-season minor league.  Lefthanders Robbie Erlin (5) and Robbie Ross (15) were recognized in the South Atlantic League rankings, but they’re not out here.  Most full-season prospects are back home, recovering from the long season.

The focus right now, properly, is on Josh Hamilton’s return to action tonight, Cliff Lee’s outstanding tune-up effort last night, and whether the Rays will be able to hold the Yankees off this weekend after losing again last night.  I don’t ever mean to suggest, by all the attention I pay to what goes on in the minor leagues, that its significance is somehow greater than how it factors into making the big league team better, through scouting and player development and trades.  

It’s ultimately about what goes on in Arlington, but part of that involves what’s going on right now in Surprise, as kids Michael Young has never heard of all wear a shirt stamped with his words, and all compete to one day get where Young and his teammates are, not only playing big league baseball but gearing up to extend things beyond 162.

It’s Time in Texas
But Surprise development
Widens the window

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(c) Jamey Newberg
http://www.newbergreport.com
Twitter  @newbergreport

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